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Poor mental health among young people is on the rise. And with it, the broader conversation about how theatre can be a useful tool for dealing with complex emotions, anxiety and stress, as Peter Glanville explains.

Tangled Feet's production of Butterflies
Tangled Feet's production of Butterflies

Greta Zabulyte

Children’s mental health and well-being has never been so important. The statistics are alarming. Young Minds research (2021) shows that 1 in 6 children aged 5+ were identified as having a probable mental health problem. That’s five children in every classroom. 

More recently, the Good Childhood Report 2022 said that 85% of parents and carers are concerned about the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on their families. Help is urgently needed. So, what can theatre and drama do to support children? 

At Polka, we have committed ourselves to prioritising children’s well-being. Following the first lockdown there was a huge amount of concern around children returning to the classroom.  

There were many discussions about how children would adapt to coming back into the school environment, how they might cope with the anxieties of being apart from families and re-socialising with their friends, and how difficult it would be for them to focus on their learning in a classroom environment. 

The five losses

Around this time, we came across the Recovery Curriculum, by Barry Carpenter a Professor of Mental Health in Education, which argued for a more holistic approach to the curriculum when children returned to school, built around a raised awareness of mental health needs. His words resonated with concerns we were hearing from parents and teachers. 

He talked about how the five losses - of routine, structure, friendship, opportunity and freedom - can trigger the emergence emotionally of anxiety, trauma and bereavement in any child. The overall impact can potentially cause a rapid erosion of their mental health state.

In response to this, we created a series of interactive drama workshops, for Reception to Year 6 children. We looked at routines, friendships, loss and the rollercoaster of emotions that children had been facing during and post-pandemic. 

These workshops used puppets, drama activities and role play to tell fictional stories which safely enabled the children to explore these key worries and anxieties – vicariously making connections with their own experiences and feelings. We also shared different coping mechanisms, including emotional regulation techniques, and breathing exercises - modified for children from Reception through to Year 6. 

The workshops were delivered in person initially but were also made accessible as nine x10 minute videos, freely downloadable. 

A boy called Mo

To give you an idea, the narrative of the Reception & KS1 workshops tells a story of a boy called Mo (a puppet) who is having to cope with a number of different worries, thoughts and feelings including anger and sadness. 

As a group, the children decide what advice they could give Mo and suggest what techniques and coping mechanisms he could try to help him.

By exploring Mo’s situation, the children can identify their own emotions, feel more empowered to find ways to help themselves, and be more aware and empathetic to others around them.  

Here are some of the comments from Year 6 children, which highlight the profound impact of the work:

"Was good to have time to reflect on my feeling and emotions." 
"It helped me to look forward to things and think about the future." 
"It was nice to know that others are feeling the same as me." 

Chasing the butterflies away

Theatre and drama activities can play a significant part in helping to support children’s well-being and, at Polka, we reflect this in our programming.

Shows by companies like Tangled Feet, whose beautiful production of Butterflies is part of our current season, are powerful and impactful responses to supporting young children through their fears and anxieties. 

The company also accompanied their touring production with a Mindfulness and Yoga project in schools, using the story of three friends embarking on an epic journey to chase their anxieties, their ‘butterflies’ away. 

The work supported children’s concentration and helped to improve behaviour – each session ending with a mini-meditation with the children snuggled up with blankets and eye pillows. 

The emotional well-being of children is as important as their physical health, and we know from the many testimonies we receive from teachers, parents, carers and children that our work helps children to build the resilience they need to cope with life’s pressures. 

We hope that by using our films as a resource, and programming theatre that addresses their well-being, many children will find a way to express and understand their feelings and anxieties and start to look towards a hopeful and brighter time ahead. 

Peter Glanville is Artistic Director of Polka Theatre.
@polkatheatre | @PeteGlanville21

If you know of a school that would like Polka’s free film links and lesson plans, please get in touch with creativelearning@polkatheatre.com stating which year group you work in. 

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Image of Peter Glanville